Tools of the Trade: Poetic Inspirations
by Kelly Virgin
At Continuity this past weekend we began our thinking by reading and reflecting on poetry. After looking at several poems, we were given a few minutes to write about whatever came to mind. The last stanza of “Famous” by Naomi Shihab Nye instantly inspired me to write. I borrowed her last lines and continued with my own:
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous, or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular, but because it never forgot what it could do.
I can give first-class belly rubs and meandering, sun-filled walks that bring the wag of a tail and a tongue-filled smile.
I can wake up five minutes first to fill the house with the scent of brewed coffee and to present a steaming mug to my groggy but appreciative partner.
I can help a student believe in herself as a writer by praising her creativity and giving her space for voice and choice in my classroom.
Like the pulley and the buttonhole, my purposes are small and intimate, but in those moments, I become famous.
This brief spurt of inspiration and the thoughtful discussion that followed reminded me how vital poetry is as a writing tool. Since poetry packs so much meaning into so few words, it works well as a seed to spark ideas for personal writing. I have found that even my most hesitant writers find success when writing in response to poetry.
Early in the school year my students and I craft oral histories. In the weeks leading up to this assignment, I engage students in daily free writing and often rely on poetry to spark ideas. The following are just a few examples of how I do this.
Novels and memoirs in verse provide an ideal resource for memory writing. For example, this year we read excerpts from Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse and used her verse to start our own writing.
After reading and talking about “Boxes” I asked students to craft list poems about the keepsakes (real or hypothetical) that they hold onto. We started the same way Karen Hesse begins this narrative section: “In my closet are two boxes, the gatherings of my life.” After crafting these short list poems, I prompted my students to trade notebooks and mark two to three items in their writing partner’s poem that they wanted to know more about. The discussions were followed by a few more moments of quiet free-writing in which I asked students to focus on describing the memories, moments, and people connected to some of the items on their lists. This year students returned to this freewrite to craft oral histories about a photo album, a necklace gifted from an absent father, an out-grown first pair of Jordans, and a parent’s faded and bent Resident Card.
I followed a similar writing routine in response to Hesse’s “Thanksgiving List”. After reading and discussing the excerpt, I invited students to brainstorm their own special occasion list poems. In just a few moments, students crafted Christmas List, Birthday List, Quinceañera List, and many others. Once we shared our poem brainstorms with each other, I gave students time to return to their lists and pull out three to five details that they felt were essential to the occasion. They then wrote again, focusing on those details and the specific memories or moments attached to each. This year students returned to this freewrite to create oral histories about the Christmas morning they received their four-wheeler, a final birthday with a grandparent, a first visit to Mexico, and dress shopping for a Quinceañera gown.
In an effort to get students to tap into memories tied to certain emotions, I also read many lyric poems with them. This year, for example, I shared “Sometimes I Cry” by Tupac Shakur. Before reading the poem, I had students create an emotions hand map, in which they traced their hands on blank sheets of paper in their writer’s notebooks and labeled each finger with a different emotion. Then we read and briefly discussed Tupac’s poem.
With the poem’s opening lines in mind, I invited students to write off of each finger by starting with the physical reaction to the emotion. For example, off of happy a student may write “sometimes I smile.” Fear may spark a student to write “sometimes I tremble.” Excited may result in “sometimes I scream” or “sometimes I cheer.” After the physical descriptions were crafted, students spent several quiet minutes writing about memories of times that they have smiled or trembled or cheered. We often returned to this poem and these hand maps to add more memories when we had a few extra minutes to fill. This year students were inspired by this freewrite to tell stories about the anxiety of waiting for news about a greencard, the excitement of water-skiing across a bay, the fear of dealing with a sick parent, and the happiness of reuniting with family.
Even if every student wasn’t able to return to one of these poetic brainstorms to find inspiration for their final writing, all were able to use the poems to tap into deeper and more meaningful parts of themselves as writers. And for this reason, the poem is and will remain a famous writing tool in my classroom.
Kelly Virgin is in her twelfth year teaching English for the Kennett Consolidated School District and has been a PAWLP fellow since 2010. She is a proud bookworm and loves sharing her passion for reading and writing with her students. This spring she will facilitate the Strategies for Teaching Literature course on Tuesday evenings.